I felt uncomfortable that my time in Guatemala, though wonderful, was influenced by a recent rise in robberies and attacks on tourists. Perhaps I ran a fine line between exercising caution and hindering my experience.
During the two months I spent in Guatemala, I heard stories from other backpackers of armed robberies on buses, aggressive attacks on hiking groups and muggings in rural areas.
Most locals I discussed the issue with were needlessly apologetic for the actions of a nasty few. They always warned me off notorious areas and more often than not, told stories of communities fed up with justice not being served by the police. A friend in Poptún even mentioned that there had recently been a public lynching of a local thief after he was miraculously released without conviction.
No one is exempt from suspicion. In a country that has historically suffered at the hands of high-level corruption, even presidents are guilty until proven innocent. In his 2015 election campaign, Jimmy Morales (formerly a TV comedian) won the presidency with the slogan “Neither corrupt, nor a thief”. However, I got the distinct impression from Guatemalans that the verdict’s still out on his relatively new government.
In fact, whether someone was corrupt or a good, honest person seemed to dominate the national psyche.
Perhaps because of this, thievery also remained at the forefront of my mind. Having had a bad experience in Potosí almost a decade ago, I’m always cautious with my belongings. However in Guatemala, my caution sometimes overcame my logic. I avoided chicken buses on sections of highway notorious for hijackings, never took my large camera out in certain towns and made sure that I didn’t show my passport in public. Were these sensible measures, or simply overkill?
I found it difficult throughout my time in the country to strike the right balance between fully embracing an experience and not letting one ‘foolish’ decision ruin my entire trip. Despite constantly meeting friendly people that made me feel welcome and safe, I often felt guilty that I didn’t totally let my guard down.
Of course, thieves don’t only harm the victims they steal from. Their aggressive behaviour, tendency to carry arms and most recently, targeted tourist attacks, damage businesses, families and Guatemala’s reputation as an upcoming mainstream tourism destination.
Add to this a reluctant acceptance of corruption at senior levels within the police force and it’s not surprising perhaps that an ‘us versus them’ mentality develops. Those who choose the path of theft are sometimes able to bribe the police for early release and so further isolate themselves from the other camp: the rest of society.
I couldn’t help wondering if the increased visitor numbers themselves – a growth in 2017 of 11% according to La Prensa Libre – have given rise to a new type of targeted crime among the disenfranchised. After all, not everyone living in poverty can directly benefit from the tourist dollar. There are potentially high numbers of people on the periphery of the recent boom who see robbery as a quick and lucrative fix.
So how did locals I spoke to think the problem might be solved?
Most felt the fault lay with the government and the richest families in Guatemala who I got told on several occasions “really ruled the country”. Taxes are high for those trying to set up businesses in the tourism industry and often, the money coming into the country from visitors isn’t finding its way to where it’s needed most – education, healthcare and helping the poorest families.
I’m pleased to say that despite my fears, my experience of Guatemala and its people was positive. The people I met were mostly friendly, albeit a bit jaded by tourists in some areas. I wasn’t targeted for anything more than an expensive tuk-tuk and apart from some choice overtaking manoeuvres on mountain roads, I never felt that my safety was threatened.
I would encourage people to visit, although by exercising a bit more caution than normal, we might be able to enhance our experience without completely stifling our sense of adventure. A perfect balance for appreciating Guatemala’s many peoples and their rich cultures.